Hiking Tales from Kluane National Park
Driving from Watson Lake to Whitehorse, I stop at the Rancheria Falls Recreation Site to stay for the night. While I am working on my battery, cleaning the posts and trying to tighten the clamp on the minus pole, somebody walks up to me and asks me what I am working on. He introduces himself as Bart Kalata from Ontario. Together with his wife Kasia and their dog Tundra, they are on holidays traveling from Ontario to Aklavik in the far north of the Northwest Territories. They work there as teachers in a small community…
That evening we talk a lot about each other’s adventures over the past years and our plans for the near future. I find out that they are both originally from Poland and so we had been close neighbors at some point. As it turns out, they are headed for the Kluane National Park Reserve to do some hiking. As the park is famous for including Mount Logan (with almost 6000 meters the highest peak in Canada) and also a lot of other mountains and glaciers, I had obviously planned to stop there too. We soon decide to join forces for that hike and I am glad to have some company again.
In the morning I start early to get to Whitehorse, which is the capital of the Yukon Territories. I buy a new clamp for my battery at a NAPA store and get it set up in the parking lot. As the old one didn’t have a good grip around the pole anymore, I am quite certain to have fixed this problem once and for all…
After restocking my fridge with food, I continue on the great Alaska Highway towards Haines Junction, where Bart and Kasia wanted to leave a note for me in the Visitors Information Center. Haines Junction is located on the eastern border of the Kluane NP and I am glad to really find a note deposited in my name. It is telling me that they had decided to do a three-day hike into the backcountry of the park and will be camping around the Kluane Lake this night, before starting the hike in the morning. “You are welcome to join us” it says…
Quite positive about finding them, I head out to the Kluane Lake looking for their Toyota RAV4 on all the campgrounds and in pretty much every small gravel road around the start of the trail. At some point I realize that I won’t find them and settle at a boat launch for the night. I feel a bit broken-hearted but I am still hoping to find them in the morning somehow before leaving for the hike.
As I didn’t have a shower in a while, I decide to jump into the Kluane Lake in the morning. Within seconds the cold creeps under my skin like a thousand painful needles. I have surely arrived in the North I think and curse my decision to jump in like that. I then continue my shower in a great hurry! Shivering I head back to the camper and get dressed quickly. When I start driving, I put the heater on maximum and make my way to the closest Visitor Center. I find out that they had registered for the Slim’s River trail the day before, which is a 45km return trip into the heart of the park.
At the trailhead I finally find them just finishing off their breakfast. I feel relieved and wave to Bart with a big smile on my face. We quickly figure out what I need to pack into my backpack and then drive back to the Visitors Center in Bart’s car. I am already having trouble again starting my own engine… I get backcountry permits for two nights and a bear-resistant food canister. The Kluane NP is well known for the amount of grizzly bears around! Half an hour later we are ready to start the hike and ask a couple from Switzerland to take a picture of us.
Together we start the trail, which leads us along an old road for the first 2 kilometers. At the side of the road we find some left-behind rusty machinery. The scenery then opens up into a little valley and we face our first river crossing. The Sheep Creek is so small though that we are able to throw some stones inside and use them as steps without getting our feet wet. Soon after the creek we follow a wooden boardwalk over a marshy area. Uselessly it ends far from dry ground and we have to continue walking through this swampy area anyway. So far I can keep my sneakers dry by jumping over all the little puddles or stepping on some bigger bushes of grass while in a wet area. As I was quite unprepared for a big hike like that, the only shoes I had were my red K-Swiss sneakers that I had brought from Germany. Hoping that not the equipment makes to good hiker I continue…
The first bigger challenge is the Bullion Creek. We have to cross it through the water, so I take off my jeans and shoes. Bart is so nice to throw me back his sandals as soon as he reaches the other side. With those shoes and a big log I make my way over to the other side safely, while using the log as a third leg. When everybody is on the other side, finally Tundra overcomes her fear of the cold current and jumps through the creek too. “Good girl!” We put our pants and shoes back on and continue the trail.
The following biggest part of the trail leads us about 16 kilometers through the Slim River valley, surrounded by great mountain ridges. We have to cross some more swampy areas but make it through without getting stuck. At about kilometer 20 the trail climbs up into the mountains, leaving the river behind for the moment. After another kilometer we are standing on top of a hill overlooking a great valley in front of us, on which far end we see the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. In our back we can see the bigger part of the valley we had just walked through.
At kilometer 22,5 we finally reach the camp and set up our tents before getting down to the fire pit to make some dinner. The fireplace is not in the same place as the camp, so we don’t attract bears into the camp. We also leave all our food and other items like toothpaste over there in the bear-proof containers. Bears can still smell the food in those containers, but are unable to open them. At the fireplace we find the swizz couple that had walked way faster then us and also a third group that has already made its way to the campsite. About an hour later Jiri from Czech Republic arrives at the campground. Together we sit at the fire until midnight, before getting in our tents. Too bad nobody bothered to bring a bottle of wine… ☺
The tent is another weak spot in my gear and so I have a very bad night while the wind howls through my cheap Walmart tent. Sleeping with mostly all my cloth on (including Gore-Tex jacket!), I survive the night in my also crappy Walmart sleeping bag. In the morning I get offered a hot tea from Bart and gladly except it.
Around noon we start to hike with our fortunately lighter backpacks towards Observation Mountain. We are a group of five now, including Jiri and Tundra. At some point we have to cross Canada Creek, which is at this moment about the same size as Bullion Creek on the previous day. We make it through without any troubles and then follow the Creek upstream until there is another creek flowing into Canada Creek from the left. We follow this creek, called Columbia Creek, always watching out for rock cairns to guide our way up the valley. After a good kilometer the trail goes straight up the mountain to our left. And by saying straight up, I mean STRAIGHT F***ING UP! There is more than one time that the thought of turning around crosses my mind. Climbing up this mountain with all my camera gear and more in my backpack brings me to the edge of my fitness. I am exhausted but my head is not ready to turn around and I always decide to climb up a bit further.
After a very long hour the “trail” starts to get less steep and I begin to think that we must have almost made it to the plateau. Before climbing up to the peak of Observation Mountain, there is a huge open plateau from which you are supposed to have a great view of the glacier. Once we reach this plateau we follow it for about 3 more kilometers around the side of the mountain until we find ourselves on the edge of it, overlooking the great Kaskawulsh Glacier and the surrounding mountaintops. At the edge we find Jiri soaking in the view. He had been faster then the rest of us and we had lost him for a while on the trail.
Resting there for a while, taking pictures of the scenery, I can feel my power coming back to me. I actually feel really great again suddenly. Climbing up to the top of the mountain is out of the question, because you wouldn’t see much more from up there. Clouds are already hanging low over our heads at the plateau. I get the idea to go down Observation Mountain on the other side, facing the glacier and then making our way around it and back into camp this way. It is probably a very stupid idea, as nobody really knows what we’ll be facing down there, but I can see the lust for a little adventure flashing up in Jiri’s eyes. Bart and Kasia decide wisely to take the same way down the mountain that we had came up.
We split on the edge of the plateau and Jiri and I start heading down the mountainside facing the glacier. We have to cross deep bushy hills to get to the bottom of the mountain. But at least we can’t fall, because all the surrounding trees catch us all the time. It takes us about two hours until we reach the bottom of Observation Mountain and the side of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. We stop for some snacks before we continue following the rocky mountain ridges next to the glacier.
Screaming out “Hey bear!” every now and then we continue to wander along until we see a little dry riverbed heading towards the toe of the glacier.Having the possibility to save a few kilometers we decide to give this shortcut a try. After a few kilometers the riverbed turns into a canyon. At some point there is another river joining our canyon, which is not dry at all! We have to climb up the edges of the canyon to avoid walking through the water. When the canyon sides get to steep to walk on, we get back into the bottom of the canyon and make our way further into the mountains.
Suddenly we stand on top of a waterfall looking down a few meters into a deep-water pool. If it wouldn’t be the north of Canada at the border to Alaska and this river wouldn’t be ice-cold glacier meltwater, it would have been very inviting to jump down the waterfall into the very deep-looking pool. But we’re not in the middle of summer in California and jumping is obviously no option! We’ll have to climb a bit…Even though we carry heavy backpacks, we make it through there dry and healthy! We had sure found the adventure we were looking for!
A few kilometers further we make it out of the canyon and stand in front of the massive ice field that they call the toe of the glacier. We rest and eat what we have left while enjoying the view. It is about 9pm by now and we have to get going without walking closer to the icebergs sadly. The way back to the big valley, with Canada Creek flowing through it, feels much farther away then we had thought and by the time we reach the creek it is way past sundown already. There is quite a lot of twilight here in this time of the year though.
Surprised we realize that Canada Creek is not the same creek that it was in the morning at all. Melting snow from the mountaintops had made it way bigger in the course of the day. It is actually braided into a few streams now and we have to cross all of them. We decide that we don’t have enough time to go separately and share Jiri’s sandals to cross it. I just take my jeans off and walk into the water with my shoes on. We then take one of Jiri’s trekking poles each and link arms while crossing the biggest of the streams. The water is hip-high now and the current pulls hard on our bodies. My feed really hurt in my sneakers by now and standing inside the creek they just feel like to big lumps of ice now. Somehow we make it to the other side and continue walking without even bothering to put on our pants.
The last light of the day is fading while we make our way through the valley, searching for the camp. By the time we get there it is fairly dark and we are relieved when we see the light of the campfire flickering in the far distance. Jiri looks at me and we give each other an epic high five. We have made it! At quarter past eleven we reach the camp and warm our feet at the fire. Bart and Kasia had waited for us, while everybody else was asleep already. As it turns out, they had had an adventure of their own, when they met a grizzly on their way back down the mountain. It took a loud bang from the Bear Banger to scare it away…
With sore feet we make our way back to our cars the next day. When we get there we had walked for over 70 kilometers including quite some elevation with heavy backpacks in three days. By the end of the day I know two things for sure. I will continue to do more hiking while on my trip and I will buy better shoes for it very soon!